Reading Sad Stories

What is it about tearjerkers that always pull me in? Books like The Secret Hum of a Daisy, The Thing About Jellyfish, and Counting by 7s are among my favorite recent children’s novels. Each book explores loss and grief in a way that feels very profound to me, though I have not experienced such loss myself. Not like the kids in those stories anyway.

No one I have been close to has died–a fact for which I am quite grateful. But my childhood was marked by regular losses, of a sort, as my family moved again and again for the first twelve years of my life. It wasn’t death, but it was a real grief that I felt as I left behind friends and familiarity for an unknown place with people who didn’t belong to me.  I feel like I spent my childhood saying goodbye and searching for a sense of home. Not so different from the kids in those books.

freeverseFree Verse by Sarah Dooley struck a particular chord with me. In the story Sasha lives in a mining town. Everyone in the town is affected when there is an accident in the mine. They all know how dangerous it is, and yet the miners go to work every day regardless. That’s the job.

That was my dad’s job for most of his life. He called himself a miner, but he didn’t actually extract anything from the earth. “Tunneller” would perhaps be more accurate as he and his crew dug mostly sewer tunnels several hundred feet underground. No less dangerous than any other sort of mining, I assure you. But that was the job.

Sasha has lost everyone she loves. Her father to the mines. Her mother to the wider world. Her brother, most recently, to a fire. As she finds a new family and a new sense of home, it isn’t easy for her to make sense of the choice to work in the mine when you have a family. Her cousin Hubert tries to explain, and I felt like my dad would be nodding in agreement if he heard Hubert’s speech about how proud he is of his work.  It’s work that matters. It’s work that not just anyone can or will do. “The equipment, the training–it’s not some dumb hillbilly job,” he tells Sasha.

Still Sasha asks, “But if something bad happens to the guy in your job, where would his family be?”

Hubert doesn’t have an easy answer to that. Neither did my dad, I suppose, though I admit we didn’t talk much about it.

Perhaps that’s what draws me to these stories. I may be a grown up who has never experienced the loss of a loved one like the kids in these books, but there is a part of me that will always be trying to sort through difficult questions and find a sense of home for myself where the answers–never easy–at least feel like they fit.

Each of these stories offer a bit of hope that we can find what we will find our fit if we keep trying. If we keep letting new people into our lives, if we listen to their stories, and try to understand, we’ll create a sense of home.  These are the stories, Free Verse especially, I wanted to find as a kid to get me through the goodbyes and the questions.

A Little Musical Nostalgia

I have always tried to avoid getting stuck musically.  The chances that the music of my youth is the only music worth listening to has always seemed preposterous enough to keep me searching for new music. And when I say “searching for new music” I really mean listening to the bands my (musician) partner suggests to me. Hey, he knew I would love Catbath as soon as he heard them. He was the one who put Lookbook and Matt Latterell CDs in the car for my commute. It’s a good system.

But lately, it’s been all about the music of my youth. In a fit of cleaning and organizing one afternoon, I unearthed a box of CDs that probably hadn’t been unpacked for our last two moves, and it was like Christmas. My commute music for that week was at least fifteen years old as I pulled out a handful of CDs each morning. Old Death Cab for Cutie. Old Modest Mouse. Old stuff from bands I’d forgotten I even liked. It was really, really fun.

capnjazzThen I happened upon this list of the 40 Greatest Emo Albums of All Time, and my musical nostalgia grew even larger as I found myself listening to Braid and Sunny Day Real Estate and feeling seventeen again. But it was when I put Cap’n Jazz’ Analphabetapolothology in that I really recaptured something. Cap’n Jazz, arguably weird and experimental music that wouldn’t appeal to everyone, had been my Get Stuff Done music. It was what I played when I was doing/working/ making. It seemed like I was always in the middle of a project back then, and Cap’n Jazz was project music. It made me want to do  stuff.  It still does, it seems.

I think I finally realized why people get stuck musically. It isn’t about the music of their youth being the pinnacle of musical expression as I judgmentally assumed. It’s about staying connected to the time when you felt most free. For me, that was the late 90’s and early 2000’s, when I was writing every day and making zines regularly with Cap’n Jazz keeping me going. I might not be putting Analphabetapolothology in my regular rotation, but I can say that I won’t go for as long without listening to it again.

Writing My Story

whywewriteNot long after this post in 2013, I decided that I would try to write a memoir.  Two years later, I have read a wide array of memoirs–from memoirs in verse to graphic memoirs to picture book memoirs–and I’ve read books about how to write memoirs, including Handling the Truth and Use Your Words. All that reading, and I have yet to write a word of anything memoir-like beyond the occasional personal anecdote on this blog.

Most recently, my dream of writing my story found me in a memoir writing class.  After five weeks of writing exercises, idea exchange, and encouragement, my only progress was adding more titles to my to-read list, including recent memoirs by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Sandra Cisneros, and more.  And I’m already on the library waiting list for Why We write about Ourselves: 20 Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, which doesn’t published until January.

Who has time to write when there are all these compelling stories to read?

Until I get all the books read, there’s always this blog, I suppose, for memoirish writing here and there amidst the book recommendations.

Homeschooling never ends

thisismyhomeI quit school after sixth grade.  I’d already already attended five different elementary schools and one middle school in six states, and the twelve-year-old me felt like I’d seen all that public school options had to offer. I was pretty sure I could do just as well educating myself as many of the schools I’d experienced. Probably better in the case of the last school I attended.

So I spent the summer between sixth and seventh grade convincing my parents to let me quit, to let me take charge of my own education.  It took all summer, but it worked.  That was how we became homeschoolers. It was a wonderful and empowering experience for me, and while I have chosen public school for my daughter, I still strongly support homeschooling as an option. It has become much more mainstream in the years since my family homeschooled, but it’s still really rare to see a homeschooling family in a children’s book.  That’s why I was really excited about Jonathan Bean‘s new semi-autobiographical picture book, This is my Home, This is my School.

I completely agree with what Jonathan Bean says in the author’s note: “Homeschooling never ends.” The mindset behind my family’s decision to homeschool has stayed with me. I still look for opportunities to learn wherever I am, to explore my community, and to take on new projects. I hope that no matter where my daughter attends school, she picks up on the values that I still hold from my homeschooling experience.

Read more about This is my Home, This is my School:

Moving isn’t easy

Moving isn’t easy. I should know.  I moved twelve times before I was twelves years old. I considered myself quite the expert. I knew how to pack boxes and say goodbye, and I knew what to expect on the first day at a new school. I can tell with certainty that it was never easy. I never wanted to move. I never wanted to leave friends or belongings behind. I never had a choice.

yardsalelennyandlucyThere were many times when I felt like Callie in Yard Sale or Peter in Lenny & Lucy, and I don’t remember having  books like this back then.  I had to find my own way.

I’ll be honest, books like these still affect me deeply. They tell a story that I can feel in my bones: moving can feel like more than you can bear, but you will bear it. You’ll lean on your family or you’ll find some other way to cope. But you will be okay.

If my childhood taught me nothing else, it is that you will begin to feel at home anywhere if you try.

My most recent moves have been by choice. They’ve been less about emotional upheaval, and more about the usual physical upheaval of packing and unpacking. This last move was only a half a block from old to new, so the disruption of life and routine was minimal. Still, in any move, it takes conscious effort to feel at home in the new space, to create new habits, and to find the comfortable feeling that makes us happy to be there.

I am happy that books like Yard Sale and Lenny & Lucy exist. I hope they are shared widely with a wide variety of readers. I think they will resonate with anyone saying goodbye, settling in, or trying to adjust to a new set of circumstances. They certainly did for me.

Are you really a librarian?

Yes and no. The answer to the question “What do you do?” should not really be this complicated, but it is for me.  Yes, I am a librarian. No, I do not work in a library. This is usually when I get a blank look from whoever I am speaking to, and I start trying to explain: I’m a staff librarian at a book company. I’m one of the people, there are several of us, who help the real (more straightforward) librarians decide what books to buy.

A colleague of mine wrote about this very situation. He said,

“Here’s the thing. I don’t work at a library. Or maybe put in another way . . . I work at thousands of libraries. I work for a vendor that sells materials and services to school libraries across the country. My exact title is collection development specialist, and my primary task is to assist schools in finding the newest and best resources for their classrooms and media centers. In essence, I shop for books all day with other people’s money. Yeah, it’s a pretty sweet gig.”

Unlike my colleague, though, who says “But in my heart of hearts I know I’m not really a librarian,“ I argue that I am a librarian, and that the work that I do isn’t that far removed from what I did when I was in a public library.  It’s just a lot more specific.

In a library, I worked at a reference desk where I answered questions from library patrons about books or about whatever else they wanted to know.  There’s no reference desk at a book company, but the librarians in my department are to go-to people for anything book or library related.  I still spend a good portion of my work days answering questions, helping people, and finding information.  Just like a librarian.

The biggest part of my job is book promotion and collection development, just like it was when I was in a public library. I review and evaluate books.  I look for ways to connect them to readers or classrooms.  I might not be making displays or bulletin boards like I used to, but I am making book lists of all sorts for the librarians I speak with to use in their libraries.  As in the quote above, my primary task is helping librarian shop for books.  He’s right about one thing: it is a pretty sweet gig.

That all said, there’s a lot I miss about working in a library.  I definitely miss working with kids directly. One day I’d like to get back to that, and meanwhile I still look for opportunities to connect with young people whenever I can.  But the biggest thing I miss is the ease with which I could answer the question “What do you do?”

I do, however, answer the question “Are you really a librarian?” with a yes. Even if it does require a bit of explanation. ;)

How to ask a question

Questions are a big part of my life.  Not only am I a librarian, a career that has a particular focus on helping people answer questions, but also I’m a person with a visible physical difference–not to mention the assistive device I wear.  I live with curiosity, and I’ve decided to encourage it.

its-ok-to-ask-thumbIf you’ve been reading this blog for a while, this isn’t news.  I’ve talked a lot about the questions people ask and the way that I answer them.  Here are just a few posts on the topic:

  • It’s Okay to Ask – Features a new picture book that encourages young kids to feel comfortable asking about disabilities and see beyond them.
  • My Day at School – Reflections on not being able to blend in when I visit my daughter’s classroom for the day.
  • Storytime Reflections – I was a special guest at a storytime at a public library, and I got some great questions from the kids and parents in the audience.

I have gotten questions of all sorts.  Some quite rude, most just hesitant and awkward.  I answer them all as best I can.  Not long ago, though, a little girl asked me about my prosthetic arm in the nicest way possible, and I just had to share.  She said, “I like your arm.  Can you tell me about it?”

It doesn’t get better than that. :)

A Doll Like Me

dollslikemeI don’t think I would have appreciated a “doll like me” when I was young enough to play with dolls, but I still wish I had had one.

I occasionally saw toys that attempted to represent kids with differences on display at clinics.  There were dolls with hearing aids, stuffed animals wearing braces, and others.  I never saw any with a limb deficiency or a prosthesis like mine, and I was glad because I was mortified at the thought of my parents getting me a disability doll.

I’m not sure I gave it much thought at the time.  I was an introspective kid, but when it came to the toys I liked, I mostly went by feeling.  My feeling was pretty strong that I didn’t want anything “special.” I knew that I felt just like other kids.  I felt totally normal, and so I felt I should have the same toys from the same stores  as other kids.  Not special ordered through a clinic.

I didn’t want to talk about my arm or answer questions about it. Like most kids, I wanted to talk about the things I loved, the things made me me.  My physical difference felt like a distraction from the me I was inside.  Why would I want a toy that emphasized it?

I still understand those feelings, but I’ve thought a lot more about it in the years since I stopped playing with dolls.  I’ve considered issues of representation and identity as they relate to the media kids are consuming and the toys that kids are playing with on a much deeper level than I did when I was eight.  I’ve thought about what it means to have one’s identity erased from public view, and I’ve felt the thrill–yes, I do mean to use that strong of a word–of seeing a usually invisible part of myself represented in the media. Not to mention, I’ve had enough people say “That’s weird” when I say that I was born without an arm to know how important being visible really is.

It took me a long time to realize that I didn’t have to blend in or erase parts of myself to be considered normal.  I just had to move past the obstacle.  I’ve said before: sometimes talking about things makes them less of an issue.  That certainly has been the case for me.

It is because of my childhood feeling of wanting to avoid being special that I am excited about Toys Like Me.  I felt normal, and I wanted normal toys.  So let’s normalize me.  Let’s normalize all sorts of different bodies and experiences for our kids.  Makies, a company that makes customizable dolls, is taking suggestions.  What do you want to see?  Let them know.

Perhaps if I’d had a doll like me when I was a kid, I wouldn’t have spent so long trying to be invisible.

Poem in your pocket

“Every day is some kind of holiday with librarians.”  My partner says this or some variation on it whenever I mention that it’s National Whatever Day or Whatever Awareness Day, which I do fairly often.  I can’t really argue.  There’s always something to celebrate, and you can always count on  librarian or a teacher to do just that. I don’t think it’s just me.  :)

Today happens to be one of my favorite celebrations: Poem in Your Pocket Day.  It is the day I choose a small poem for each member of my family to carry with them.  The Academy of American Poets encourages people everywhere to carry #pocketpoems on Poem in Your Pocket Day.  The organization has lofty goals like promoting art appreciation and getting poetry into the media.  I think that’s wonderful, but my intention is more down-to-earth.  I just want to bring my family into my world.  I fell in love with poetry a long time ago, and it is very important to me.  I don’t read it or write it as much as I would like anymore, but I still feel a strong connection to the art.  It’s a connection that I want to share with my partner and my daughter.  Even if they don’t take their poems out of their pockets all day, they are there.  Maybe the words will seep into their souls just by being close to them.

The best holidays are the quiet ones, in my opinion.  Poem in Your Pocket Day is just right.

Of course, any day might be a good day for a pocket poem.  For kids’ poetry, check out The Poem Farm in which poet Amy Ludwig Vanderwater shares poems and other fun stuff.

 

Why I am a Librarian

For School Library Month, librarians all over the Internet are sharing their stories of why they became librarians with the hashtag #whylib.  For me, becoming a librarian was more of a why not? than a why.  I didn’t really know what to do with my English degree other than write, and I knew I needed something to pay the bills while I wrote my novel.  I’d always loved libraries, so it seemed like a natural fit for me to be a librarian.  I started library school with my only expectation being he hope that I could support a writing career by the end.

Along the way–between classes in reference and instruction and other library staples–I discovered Young Adult Literature.  I knew very quickly that this was it for me.  Teen fiction and library services to teens was my professional heart.  My first job out of library school was focused on teen services at a public library, and it was a tremendous learning experience for which I am incredibly grateful.

From there, I went to work in the book industry–first for one book distributor/library vendor and now another–where my focus has widened from teens to the whole range of K-12 education.  This was a new perspective for me, and I didn’t really know if I would take to it.

After almost ten years on this side of the library world, I can say that I have gained a strong appreciation for the power of libraries–and librarians–along with a knowledge of children’s literature from picture books and easy readers to the teen fiction I still love.

I may have begun my career with a why not?, but every new experience has given me more of a why than ever.  The twenty-year-old me who started library school would never have guessed that I would end up being as passionate about picture books, storytimes, and children’s programming as I ever was about teen fiction.

I have learned a lot.  Mostly about connection, community, and the power of stories.  That’s what libraries are all about, and that’s why I am a librarian.

Related Links:

  • 6 Things I Wish I’d Known – I wrote this post after listening to an MPR segment with a similar theme.
  • Reflections of a Book Reviewer – My post after eight years of reviewing books for Library Journal.
  • Remember Your Why – From the Letters to a Young Librarian blog.
  • #whylib – Follow the hashtag on Twitter.

 

The Post Script is that I have not yet written a novel, but I still dream of doing so one day.  In the meantime, I had an article in last month’s VOYA Magazine. ;)